HC Deb 14 July 1959 vol 609 cc299-321

8.0 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Ernest Marples)

I beg to move, That the Agreement, dated 16th March, 1959, between Her Majesty's Postmaster General and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company for the acquisition of facilities to increase the capacity of submarine cable systems, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th June, be approved The first coaxial cable used for telephone communication between this country and the United States of America was laid across the Atlantic in 1955. Two coaxial cables were laid and the original intention was that there should be 29 speech channels in each direction—that is to say, 29 speech channels from England to the United States on one cable and vice versa with the other cable. The quality and tone of that service were absolutely superb and the experts were astonished at the technical performance. I think that the accountants were confounded from a financial point of view because of the enormous number of people who wished to take advantage of this excellent new service.

This Agreement, which is a substantive Motion for which I ask the approval of the House, is an arrangement whereby new techniques will be introduced at each end of the cable for two reasons. The first is that they will extract more speech channels from the same two cables which now lie at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The second is that they will keep the quality and tone at the present high level.

Any agreement of this nature comes under Standing Orders Nos. 87 and 88 of the House. Standing Order No. 88 reads: Every such contract, when executed, shall forthwith, if Parliament be then sitting, or if Parliament be not then sitting, within fourteen days after it assembles, be laid upon the Table of the House, accompanied by a minute of the Lords of the Treasury, setting forth the grounds on which they have proceeded in authorising it. I apologised yesterday for not carrying out that Standing Order. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. C. R. Hobson) was kind enough, with characteristic generosity, to accept that apology, but it would be only right to say again that we at the Post Office—it is my responsibility entirely and no one else's—did not comply with that Standing Order.

I give this as a reason, but not as an excuse. It is difficult to comply with the Standing Order in dealing with international agreements, because it means that the Post Office, or the Government, must be the last to sign the agreement. In this case, as I said yesterday, we signed the Agreement first. The reason was that the American Telephone and Telegraph Company engrossed the Agreement and sent it to us for signature. We fell in with that arrangement and, therefore, inadvertently prevented ourselves from making an immediate report to the House.

What I have done—and I say, frankly, that from a Parliamentary point of view we could have done a great deal better—is to start a searching inquiry into why we, or perhaps I should say I, made this mistake, and I am trying to create machinery so that we shall not make the same mistake again. The House accepted my apology yesterday. I am sure that it will accept my apology today.

Standing Order No. 87 is very important, in my view. The last sentence of it reads: … the contract "— that is, such as I am now asking the House to approve— shall not be binding until it has been approved of by a resolution of the House. We have not broken that Standing Order. The sovereignty of the House has been preserved and the Agreement will not become an Agreement unless it is approved by the House.

Paragraph 12 reads: It is a condition of this Agreement that it shall not be binding until it has been approved of by a resolution of the United Kingdom House of Commons. Until such approval shall have been given, either party hereto is free to withdraw from this Agreement without any obligation hereunder to the other party. The sovereignty of the House is thereby preserved. We can accept, reject or criticise the Agreement.

Nothing has yet been done or agreed. No step has been taken. Yesterday, the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) told the House that he had once transgressed a Standing Order and said that he had to bring forward an indemnity Bill. But in that case illegal action had been taken because the regulation in question had been put into effect and people had observed it. The right hon. Gentleman was asking the House to validate action taken by him illegally because the regulations had been acted upon, although, in effect, they had no force. In this case, nothing has been done without the permission of the House, and nothing will be done. We are late in presenting the Agreement to the House. For that I apologised yesterday, and I thought it right and proper to apologise again when introducing the substance of the Agreement.

I should now like to turn to the Agreement itself and to try to explain it without legal language. It is the result of technical development in both the United States and the United Kingdom. These developments have been designed to increase the number of speech channels without modification of the cable itself. It adds a bit of what I call "technical magic" at each end of the submarine cables—that is to say, at the Canadian end and at our end. The United Kingdom has played a part in one invention and the United States has played a part in the other.

The United Kingdom invention, which is a Post Office invention, is called the new channel equipment and it increases the capacity of the existing cable by one-third. Normally, in this coaxial cable, four kilocycles are used for a speech channel. In future, this equipment will allow three kilocycles to be used. This will increase the capacity of the existing cable under the Atlantic by one-third.

The United States has introduced what is called the "Time Assignment Speech Interpolation". To make it more intelligible, it is called "TASI", which are the first letters of the four words I have mentioned. It was invented by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and it doubles the capacity. It does so by what I call stealing the idle period on one conversation to provide accommodation for another conversation. It uses the cable to its maximum capacity. Used together, capacity will be increased from 29 speech channels to 74 speech channels.

I should like to deal with the cost of the terminal equipment in principle. First, both the United States and the United Kingdom are treated alike. Secondly, the equipment from both countries is supplied at cost. The word "cost" includes the cost of development of design. Thirdly, the cost will be spread over all the units manufactured up to 1st January, 1965. That is provided for in paragraphs 3 and 4. The cost of the United Kingdom invention will be £35,000 and the cost of TASI, or the United States invention, will be about £500,000.

The United States invention gives a much greater increase in capacity than our invention. It is very ingenious, complicated, costly and very creditable, and one would wish to congratulate the American Telephone and Telegraph Company on this remarkable piece of research. It is also creditable from the United Kingdom's point of view, because this country manufactured the original cable. The cable was laid by the Post Office ship "Monarch".

We have played our part in this new equipment. In conjunction with the American equipment, we shall obtain more capacity from the existing cables. This is a joint technical development at each end of the existing cable. There were 29 cables in the original design. There will now be 74. That means that there will be another 45 channels in addition to the original 29.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)

How do the mathematics of the right hon. Gentleman fit in with the Treasury Minute of 29th May, where it is stated that the two techniques can be used in conjunction to provide about two and a half times the number of circuits? I should like a little accuracy in the matter. Two and a half times 29 does not come to 74.

Mr. Marples

Two and a half times 29 is about 74, which I have said. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

Mr. Williams

Secondly, do 3 million dollars amount to £500,000?

Mr. Marples

It all depends on the rate of exchange which is used. From our point of view in this country it will be about £500,000 which we shall spend on the United States equipment, and £35,000 on our own. The Americans will have a corresponding expenditure on their side.

May I put it this way, to make it clearer? Originally, we had 29 channels in the Atlantic cable. The cost of that to this country, our end of it, our half of it, was £7½ million. We shall now get an additional 45 channels, 74 altogether, for just over £500,000. By this technical development we have remarkable value for money in stepping up the number of channels and not paying a great deal for it. The figure is £7½ million for 29 channels; and for the additional 45 channels we are spending just over £500,000, which is a remarkable bargain.

That is what I am asking the House to approve tonight. I am very sorry about the laying of the Agreement. I am being frank. I made a mistake, but the House is not committed, and if the House wishes to reject the Agreement or to criticise it, it is free to do so; but I hope that the House unanimously will approve what I think is a great technical achievement by the United States and this country.

8.11 p.m.

Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)

Before agreeing to this Motion, which is a substantive Motion, I think that a few things ought to be said about yesterday's statement by the Postmaster-General. Of course, we accept his apology. We do it willingly, and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, I think graciously. We accept that anybody can make a mistake. Such is our doctrine that if civil servants make a mistake the Minister has to accept the responsibility for it, although he himself may not necessarily have made it. However, I must say, in the context of the statement that he made—indeed, it is the least that I can say—that it was rather careless.

I want to ask one or two rather pertinent questions. Why the delay in making the statement? I do not think that there is any good in saying, as the right hon. Gentleman did yesterday in reply to my question: I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I will. To comply with Standing Orders where other countries are involved is not always easy. The difficulty is common to every Department which has relationships with other countries. The right hon. Gentleman said: It means that this country has always to sign last. If, for example, we have an agree- ment with America which involves Congress and the Senate, it almost means meeting in mid-Atlantic to sign and then rushing home to comply with the Standing Orders."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th July, 1959; Vol. 609, c. 35.] That is a rather lame excuse.

Mr. Marples

I have not made any excuse. I may have given a reason, but I have never given an excuse.

Mr. Hobson

Right. The reason is not a valid one; it is not valid at all. I think that it is more imaginary than real. I do think that the reply which the right hon. Gentleman gave the House yesterday was a flight of imagination. It may not have been hyperbole, but it was an exaggerated statement, because every other Department making comparable agreements has to comply with the Standing Orders, as well as the Post Office.

Moreover, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, the Standing Orders are clear and concise on this matter. There is nothing nebulous about them. They are direct. They are reasonably understandable even by laymen. I refer, of course, to Standing Orders Nos. 87 and 88. Indeed, a search to find those Standing Orders is hardly necessary, because the Standing Orders are actually edited under the heading "Packet and Telegraphic Contracts". It does not involve very deep research to find them. The Agreement, which must have been discussed and drawn up by the Post Office, says, in Article 12, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, that the Agreement must have the endorsement of the House.

I want to ask two or three questions to which we have not yet had answers. We are entitled to have them and we are determined to get them. Why, when the Agreement was laid about fifteen days ago, and a copy was placed in the Library on 26th June, was a copy not available for hon. Members in the Vote Office until the afternoon of Thursday, 9th July? Why was that so? Such documents as this must be placed in the Vote Office of the House, not merely in the Library. What is the reason for this strange, sloppy and lackadaisical procedure? It is altogether wrong.

There must be something entirely wrong at Post Office Headquarters. Surely it must be known there that of agreements of this sort copies must be put in the Vote Office, and that it is not good enough just to place them in the Library of the House. Since when has it been deemed necessary to place documents such as this in the Library only and not also in the Vote Office? I am very pleased to hear that the right hon. Gentleman is overhauling the Department, because this is a quite flagrant mistake, and I hope that it will not recur. Arrangements in the Department have got to be thoroughly overhauled.

It is not often that the Post Office has need to come to the House for legislation. It presents legislation with any frequency only for the normal Money Bill, which is a biennial Bill. Of course, this is not the first mistake that we have had. We were not impressed with the briefing of the Assistant Postmaster-General in another matter. I am not criticising the manner in which he spoke. He did that with a clarity which even I can envy. I am dealing with the Post Office Works Bill [Lords]. It was a difficult Bill which originated in another place and I believe that it was a hybrid Bill. New Clauses had to be inserted here. I do not know where we should have been in the Standing Committee on the Bill but for the Clerks, who are always ready to inform us on procedural matters.

In fairness to the Opposition, I want to say that we really do expect the right hon. Gentleman to pay a little more attention to his Parliamentary duties. I feel constrained to do this. For instance, we had the Bill relating to sponsored television, the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), and the right hon. Gentleman was not present. We had the Post Office Works Bill [Lords]. It was left to the Assistant Postmaster-General. Frankly, the right hon. Gentleman's appearances at Question Time are somewhat sporadic. I say that it is really not good enough. I hope—and this is my final word on the subject—that he will examine the machinery within his Department for bringing to the notice of the House anything which it is his duty to lay before the House, and that he himself will attend to his Parliamentary duties.

As for the Agreement itself, we shall support it. Indeed, we are in agreement with it. It is obvious from the state- ment which the right hon. Gentleman has made that it will improve the communications between this country and the United States of America, and I am sure that anything that can be done to improve communications between the three great English-speaking nations on this and the other side of the Atlantic is very welcome indeed to us on this side of the House.

I want to ask one or two questions. Both the techniques, the British and American, are for increasing the capacity of the cables, in the case of the British scheme, by 33 per cent., according to the Treasury Minute, and in the case of the American, 100 per cent. Am I right, therefore, in assuming that the Americans have now taken a lead on us in the development of modern telephonic submarine cables? It rather looks as though they have. If so, of course, this is a complete change of pattern. It is Britain which has been in the lead heretofore. While we congratulate the Americans on this invention, nevertheless I think that we must realise that it is somewhat regrettable that we who have been leaders in this should find ourselves surpassed by the Americans. After all, we were the pioneers in submarine repeaters. I do not think any other nation, not even the Americans, had that invention.

Concerning the shore ends of the apparatus, with which, apparently, this Agreement deals, I should like to know whether it was developed at Dollis Hill, which, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, is the research station of the Post Office, or whether it was developed by private enterprise in Britain associated with the Post Office? There are many private companies which have a liaison, and certainly there is an association which is far from tenuous, with the great telephone constructing companies. I should be very pleased if the right hon. Gentleman could tell us whether the British invention was developed under the auspices of the Post Office. It was, in fact, Post Office engineers who developed the submarine repeater.

I take it that there is no question of inserting this apparatus into the cable other than at the shore ends. The right hon. Gentleman made a very categorical statement about that, and presumably he is right, but I should like, when he replies, which I hope he will by asking the leave of the House, to have an answer to that question. This is rather important, in view of the difficulties which the maritime department of the Post Office is having to encounter at the moment, as a result of the loss of the "Ocean Layer", owned by Submarine Cables, Ltd.

The Assistant Postmaster-General gave very full replies to Questions asked from this side of the House, and said that it was putting some strain on the telegraph ships because they had to go to sea more frequently. The question of the curtailment of leave arose, as well as that of maintenance getting into arrears, because of the extra work, which had been the lot of the "Ocean Layer," having to be carried out by the "Monarch" and other ships of the fleet. If any of this apparatus has to be put into the cable itself, it obviously means greater work for the cable fleet and greater difficulties for the maritime department.

On page I of the Agreement, in the Preamble, it is stated that patents are to be exchanged. Which patents? All our patents, or just the patents of the apparatus which the Americans have produced? I should like to have a little clarification on that, because I am sure that the Post Office is sufficiently cute to see that there is in fact a mutual exchange of patents. To me, it was not quite clear, and I would feel happier in supporting this Agreement if I knew that there was to be 100 per cent. reciprocity.

On the new system, which goes under the name of Time Assignment Speech Interpolation, which is rather a mouthful, I should like to know where it has been tested operationally. Obviously, it is quite a recent development. I do not think that the Post Office would undertake a contract of this sort, involving the amount of money which it does, and, indeed, money in hard currency, without, first, being assured that this apparatus had been tested operationally. I should like information, if it is forthcoming, on that point.

Another question arising from the Agreement which I should like to ask is whether we ourselves shall be able to manufacture this special equipment, which goes under the initials T.A.S.I., under licence, and whether the Ameri- cans will be able to manufacture our patent, which increases the capacity of the submarine cable by 33⅓ per cent.? With all due respect to the right hon. Gentleman, and I am not a lawyer but merely a layman, I do not think paragraph 7 makes this very clear. The phrase used is certainly a qualifying phrase. It says: … the American Company shall use its best endeavors to make available to him or his manufacturers, this equipment. Likewise, in paragraph 7 (b), the same phraseology is used with regard to British equipment in the ownership of the Postmaster-General.

While it may be very easy for us to exchange our patents, I do not think it necessarily follows that the Americans will be able to do likewise. With the best intentions in the world, if we read the Agreement carefully we find that it comes out clearly and precisely that this is not merely equipment of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, but apparently equipment which is made by other firms, such as Western Electric.

Presumably, knowing American businessmen, and I am not blaming them, there will be very close association between the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and Western Electric. Therefore, it does not follow that this exchange will take place; it merely says that they will endeavour to effect this exchange. I hope we succeed, but, at the present moment, it is far from being clear, definite and precise.

We welcome the fact that, according to paragraph 3 of the Agreement, the Post Office practice regarding contracts so far as costing is concerned is to be the rule. I think that that is highly desirable. As Assistant Postmaster-General some years ago, like the hon. Gentleman who holds that office at the moment, I was chairman of the Contracts Committee, and in that position one gets to know a little about Post Office methods. From my experience in local government before I came into Parliament, and before I entered a Department, I thought that Post Office methods were very sound, commonsense, fair and equitable, and, what is more, very ingenious at times in having checks on costs. I thought that the people in the Post Office were just as good businessmen as some other people whom we could mention.

Of course, when dealing with the Americans, there is a different—I was going to say ethic, but that is hardly the correct word—procedure where they are concerned. It may be that their methods of costing are not ours. As far as profits are concerned, it may be that they are considerably higher than we in the Contracts Department of the Post Office used to recognise. These are very important points, and I should like to have some elucidation of them.

The only real criticism, or my main criticism, of the Agreement is this. I may be wrong, but in reading it—and I read it very carefully, and I think I am right—I find that it states that the design cost of the apparatus, which the right hon. Gentleman has informed us is very costly, is to be covered by Britain and the United States. That is in the Agreement

This is very unusual, because it means that the British and Americans will have to carry the whole of the design costs. What would happen, for instance, if the French, who have a small cable system, or the Italians or the West Germans suddenly made approaches to the British Post Office and to the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and said, "You have a first-class apparatus with 74 speech channels on a coaxial cable as against 24 and we should like to have it."? As we are friends and allies in N.A.T.O. we should probably agree, and we should be the people who had paid the whole of the design costs of the apparatus. That is not quite just or equitable, but there may be an answer to it. Prima facie, it would appear to be somewhat unfair.

I should be grateful for answers to some of the questions that I have asked. If those answers are satisfactory, I am sure that we would readily acquiesce to this substantive Motion.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)

On the subject of the explanation given by the Postmaster-General, I am not quarrelling with my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. C. R. Hobson) about some of the things he said, although I am one of those who accept a humble apology in the spirit in which it is given. If all Government Departments had made as few mistakes as has the Post Office we should not be in a very bad way in the matter of the proceedings in the House. If a slip was made, it is generous on the part of the House to accept that it was a slip and that there was nothing deliberate about it. The reason was given and, personally, I accept the explanation given by the Postmaster-General on behalf of this great Department. I am not saying that there was no merit in the reference made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, but that is my reaction.

I am very much in favour of the interchange of scientific and engineering ideas between the United States and this country especially in world telecommunications. I am one of those who believe that, perhaps, we could extend the scope of the interchange to cover not only the Western side but the European side as well. International telecommunications deserve the best possible scientific and engineering research.

I had the pleasure last year when I was in the United States of visiting the headquarters of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and discussing matters with the general manager and some of the higher executives. It seems very much the case in America, as it is here, that research in this and other directions is to a large extent limited only by financial considerations. In other words, if more money were thrown into research it is possible that the House would not be considering one or two techniques today but quite a number of other new devices and inventions.

I am, therefore, very pleased that we are able today to consider at least two new developments in telecommunications. As one who has spent a large part of his life in telecommunication work, I can readily appreciate the tremendous value of these two devices which we are discussing. I am very much attracted by the American device whereby, for the first time, as far as I know, one can work on the Duplex system in trans-Atlantic transmissions and not have to depend on the Simplex method. I am glad that there has been done with submarine cables what was done many years ago in transmission by morse.

I hope, therefore, that we shall be able to continue, in close agreement with the United States and perhaps other countries, to develop communications of this sort and bring the world nearer together than it is even today. I do not know, but I imagine that not only should these two new techniques add substantially to the efficiency of the service but they should also effect considerable economies in the working of the trans-Atlantic cable system. I hope that some of the effects of that economy will be shown in reduced charges which might popularise the submarine cable service and telecommunications generally with America.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley has looked very searchingly into the Agreement. I do not propose to refer to some of the points with which he has already dealt most ably. He made his points very clearly, and some of his questions deserve a firm answer. I recognise that although the Government are discussing this question on this side of the Atlantic, a private company is dealing with it on the other side. There is not only a commercial significance to the Agreement. By implication, at any rate, there is a political one. Certain of the things that we are doing in interchanging ideas affect not only the commercial side of our work but, inevitably, the security side of international telecommunications. I hope that the Postmaster-General will deal with this point if he is in a position to do so.

Although the Agreement is with a private concern in America, because private concerns run the telephones there, I am tacitly assuming that the United States Government are not only aware of the Agreement but are behind the implications which are involved, some of which are political. I do not know whether the Postmaster-General can answer that question, but the House is entitled to know not only that a private company and several subsidiary companies are involved in the matter, but that the Agreement is binding, politically, upon the United States Government as it is upon our Government.

I should like the right hon. Gentleman to elucidate two phrases in the Agreement. The first appears on page I, underneath the word "Witnesseth". The paragraph refers to telephone cable systems including cable systems in which one of the parties hereto may have no proprietary interest The second phrase appears in paragraph 5, on page 3 of the Agreement, which says: with reference to any such unit or units of equipment the cost or a portion of the cost may ultimately be borne by, and the ownership or a portion of the ownership may ultimately vest in. others not a party to this agreement. The House is entitled to know how many parties outside the two main signatories to the Agreement are involved, either directly or indirectly, by those phrases.

My third question relates to paragraph 4, and concerns a point which was pertinently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley. Is it correct to assume that the Agreement relates solely to the two new techniques defined in it, and that there is no question of extending it to cover anything except the two specific techniques and devices referred to and defined therein? I ask that question specifically because I want to know, step by step, about any new techniques or new devices which are from time to time to be the subject of international agreement either with the United States or any other country. From the political as well as the commercial point of view, it would be advisable for the House to be well informed of any developments which may take place in new techniques or devices.

If the Postmaster-General cannot answer some of the points raised tonight, I shall not mind very much. I have no doubt that he will take an opportunity of letting some of us know in other ways, if he is not in a position to do so now. I am very satisfied with this Agreement, and sincerely hope that we are at the beginning of an era in which there will be a greater interchange of ideas on scientific developments and techniques which will add to the general efficiency and economic working of all the intercontinental communication systems.

8.40 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

I think it a matter for regret that the Postmaster-General thought it necessary to return to the subject of apologies. He made his apology yesterday to the House and I should have thought that was sufficient. I do not think it was necessary for the right hon. Gentleman to go into the matter any further. We all know the trouble. The old saying that we are all fallible mortals applies equally to the Postmaster-General. It must have been rather shattering for the right hon. Gentleman to realise that, but there it is.

I wish to get clear what is happening because one is inclined to get lost among all these figures—29, 74 and all the rest of it. Here we have two new developments, one by the British Post Office engineers and one in America. These developments are complementary. The Americans will use our system with theirs and we shall use the American system with ours. I think it a matter of congratulation to our engineers when one considers what is achieved. Now we have 29 circuits here and we are installing the American system which brings the number up to 56. Had there been no British development that would have been the limit of the available circuits. I think I am right, but no doubt the Postmaster-General will correct me if I am wrong.

The cost of this development was about £500,000, but by the application of the British development we increase that by a further one-third. That brings the figure from 56 to 74. In other words, the application of the British system gives us a further 18. We get that for £30,000 and I consider it an amazing achievement. I think that the British engineers are to be congratulated on getting an increase of 33⅓ per cent. for such a small sum.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

They must be Scotsmen.

Mr. Ross

I have no doubt they are.

Mr. C. R. Hobson

They might be Yorkshiremen.

Mr. Ross

I am interested in how this expense is to be shared out. After reading the Agreement I do not come to the same conclusion as my hon. Friend. I thought the development was to be shared out and was not merely in respect of the units to be used by the American company and by the British Post Office. Paragraph 4 of the Agreement states: The amount of the payment to be made by either party to the other in respect of any one unit of equipment for costs incurred in the development and design of equipment. as specified in Paragraph 3 of this Agreement, shall be based on the estimated total costs of such development and design for each type of equipment up to the dates mentioned in Paragraph 3 divided by the estimated total number of units of each type of equipment produced or to be produced prior to January 1, 1965, whether by the party which developed the equipment or by the other party … or by any other person … That is to say, the use is not limited purely to Britain and America. In other words, it may be used by someone else, and if more units are produced, the cost of development so far as we are concerned will be so much reduced.

I cannot understand the finality of this figure of one-third of 3 million dollars in the one case and £30,000 in the other. Is this the full cost of development after the sharing-out process has been completed? Are we entirely satisfied about what the developments are to be, and that many such units are to be produced by 1st January, 1965?

That leads me to my next question. What is the further application of these developments? Surely it is not to be limited to the trans-Atlantic cable, or is it? Admittedly the cost of the development of the American device is pretty high, so there may well be only particular cases in which it will be economic to apply it. Surely the British device can be used elsewhere and found not only efficient but also economic.

I should like to hear from the Postmaster-General exactly what the prospects are of the use of the British development elsewhere. There may have to be another agreement in respect of such facilities. Will it be used in connection with any of the other submarine cables? Has it already been used in that way? Obviously when more units are produced the cheaper the cost will be, not only to ourselves but to the Americans. It would be interesting to find out whether anything has been done by the Americans to reduce the cost to us.

It is reasonably clear that this device will not be manufactured by the Post Office. Is it to be manufactured by the Post Office? Is it to be used here and installed by the Americans? It will be interesting to know what is to happen. I am interested also in knowing how binding the Agreement will be on private companies in America. There always seems to be the feeling that agreements might not be so binding on private companies as on the Government. That is evidenced by the actual wording of the Agreement, which is: The parties shall use their best endeavours". There is nothing terribly binding about that. Anyone with knowledge of Conservative election pledges will agree with me in respect of that wording. I should like to know exactly what it will mean. Is the Postmaster-General reasonably satisfied that these proposals will be accepted?

On the whole, we have to congratulate the engineers of the Post Office, and those who have been working on similar problems in America, upon producing complementary devices which will increase the speech channels from 29 to 74. It is a wonderful achievement at such a reasonable cost. If it can be applied in other systems of submarine communication, it will cost us even less than has been suggested by the Postmaster-General.

8.48 p.m.

Mr. Marples

I am grateful to hon. Members for the reasonable way in which they have taken this Motion. I will now try to deal with the Questions which have been raised. I agree with the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) that I apologised yesterday. I apologised today only because I wished to be courteous. I will leave it at that.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. C. R. Hobson) mentioned that the Assistant Postmaster-General had been taking a large share in our Parliamentary duties. It is only right that the Assistant Postmaster-General should do what was laid down by Lord Attlee, who said that the Assistant Postmaster-General should play his full part in the House of Commons as well as the Minister himself.

I now come to the questions which the hon. Member for Keighley raised.

The first was that our invention had increased the capacity, roughly speaking, by 33 per cent. but he asked if the United States had taken the lead in cables. The answer is no, they have not. Laying a co-axial cable consists of a whole series of operations, the terminal equipment, the cable itself, the laying of the cable, the type of repeater and so on For example, in the first cable, which was laid in 1955, each speech channel cost £450,000 and we used two cables with the American flexible repeater. Cantat, the third cable laid between this country and Canada, has a single cable with the Post Office rigid repeater which acts both ways.

The United States of America has by no means taken the lead in the whole field of cable laying, but in this particular terminal equipment they have done better than we have done in one respect and we have done better in another respect. It would be entirely wrong to say that they have taken the lead. The only ship in the world capable of laying 1,500 miles of cable in the Atlantic is the "Monarch". I am well aware that the lead we have got must be kept. That is not a platitude such as the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) suggested were used in the last debate. We ought to make quite certain that our cable laying capacity is better than any other in the world.

The hon. Member for Keighley asked who took the credit for the invention. The answer is that it is mostly due to the Post Office at Dollis Hill, but, as always, it would not claim the whole credit because it is working in co-operation and collaboration with private industry. It is not really competition between the Post Office and private industry but complementary effort. The rigid repeater, which was largely invented at Dollis Hill has been helped to some extent by private industry. The largest proportion of the work was done by the Post Office and—I say this as an admirer of private enterprise—in this respect most of the credit should go to the Post Office at Dollis Hill, but not all of it. They work together and I should not like us to get at cross-purposes with them over that.

The hon. Member for Keighley asked if the equipment was only at the shore end, the terminal end. He said that as we have lost the "Ocean Layer" that places a large strain on existing ships capable of laying cables. It is a perfectly natural apprehension, but I can give him this categorical assurance that the equipment is entirely at the terminal end and will not require any use of the cable-laying ships. There is no strain and no requirement on these ships and, therefore, from that point of view, the House can rest assured.

In paragraph 7 of the Agreement the hon. Member will find that the patent rights relate to such equipment, but in respect of terminal equipment now going in each party is to pay for its own cost and each party draws the result of the increased traffic. TASI has been tested operationally and our engineers have been across there.

Western Electric is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Automatic Telephone and Telegraph Company, as is most of the Bell Telephone system. The company is an enormously wealthy company. I want to pay tribute to the company. I went to America and the president of the A.T. & T. and every vice-president gave me an incredible amount of time, and a great number of explanations. I brought back from the United States of America millions of dollars worth—I mean that—of films, training films and equipment which they generously placed at my disposal absolutely free of charge. They could not have treated me more generously. I have never received more generous treatment and I wish to pay tribute to them

The House can judge of the financial terms. We had 29 original channels costing £7½ million at our end and now there will be 45 costing just over £½ million. I do not think that on the whole that is a bad deal. I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams), to whom I am grateful because of his human approach and great knowledge of the Post Office, in saying that we should exchange ideas with every country in Europe willing to do so Only today I saw four technicians from Germany who came here at my invitation to look at our telephone system. We have been to Germany to look at theirs. We have exchanged ideas freely and I think that an extremely fine thing. As to research, I am quite certain that any Postmaster-General would want to continue the excellent work which has been carried out at Dollis Hill in the past.

The hon. Member for Keighley asked, "Are we losing in the race?" I must say that we are not. We made the first Atlantic cable in 1955. We have made both cables and we laid them with the "Monarch". We laid the rigid repeaters on the Canadian side and the American flexible repeaters. Now we are laying the second cable similar to the first between the United States and France. We are providing the whole cable and selling it from this country for dollars. We are laying it with the "Monarch", now that the "Ocean Layer" has had a disaster, which is most regrettable. The third cable is the Cantat between Canada and the United Kingdom and we are laying that with Post Office rigid repeaters. I do not want it to go out from this House that we are falling behind in any way. We have played a major part in providing the first three Atlantic cables and that should be known all over the world.

The hon. Member for Openshaw, who represents his English constituency with great efficiency but still retains his Welsh characteristics in some respects, appreciated that this will add efficiency to the cable but said that he hoped it would reduce charges. The price which we now charge for Atlantic calls is the same as pre-war, so it cannot be said that it is an excessive charge. This efficiency will enable us to hold the charges as they are now. I would not hold out any hope of reduction, because I want to look at the Post Office accounts as a whole rather than at any part of them.

The hon. Member for Openshaw raised a point which it is difficult for me to answer. He asked what was the security side of this private enterprise firm in the United States. It is an agreement between the Post Office and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in America. It has nothing to do with the United States Government. They have not signed it and were not a party to the Agreement.

When I went to the United States I saw the Postmaster-General, Mr. Summerfield, who has powers which I often envy. Congress would not vote him any money, so he stopped the collection and delivery of letters. That is something which I should very much like to do, but I should not like to come to this Box and tell the House that I had done so. He stopped collection and delivery and got the money from a reluctant Congress and Senate and the whole procedure was telescoped into a day. He stopped the delivery on the Saturday and they passed a Bill and gave him all the money he required by Monday.

Mr. Thomas Steele (Dunbartonshire, West)

The right hon. Member could stop the Prime Minister's telegrams.

Mr. Marples

As long as the Leader of the Opposition's telegrams were stopped as well, I would not mind. We cannot say that this Agreement has been made with the United States Government. When I saw Mr. Summerfield, he and the President, whom he took me to see, said quite clearly that the American Telephone and Telegraph Company was their chosen instrument for telecommunications. I would tell the House that Congress has a very tight control over the charges of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and can do at any moment almost what it wants—as the House knows it is a sovereign body—and I would not doubt for a moment that the American Government would take over this Agreement if they took over the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.

I am certain that from that point of view this is the best that we can do. I cannot interfere with the American Agreements. They have chosen the American company for their telecommunications, and it is not for me in this House to say that they are wrong any more than it is for them to say that it is wrong for us to have them under the Post Office in this country.

Mr. W. R. Williams

I did not say that. All I wanted to know was about the security aspect, and I am satisfied with the reply.

Mr. Marples

I would certainly not willingly try to misrepresent anything which the hon. Member said. I understand what he meant. All I wanted to say was that we have to deal with the chosen instrument in America. They have nearly 70 million telephones compared with our 7½ million, and we are the second largest in numbers in the world. We shall have to deal with the position as it is in America.

The hon. Member for Openshaw asked whether the Agreement referred to these two items alone and what was the position about new devices. It refers only to these two because that is all we have, but I can assure the House that there is immense good will and co-operation between the United States and ourselves, and I have no doubt that if there is any new development we shall share it in the future as we have shared it in the past.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock referred to paying for the costs of development and pointed to the words "and any other person" in paragraph 4. For example, the second Atlantic cable is between the United States and France and Germany and goes to the Bay of Biscay. If they have the terminal equipment at the two ends, they will pay their part of the development charge, and the figure which I have given the House is the maximum to which the Post Office is committed. If we can get it for any less I can assure the House that we shall do so. I do not know whether the hon. Member knows the Accountant-General of the Post Office, who watches my expenses very carefully, but I can assure him that he is as good as any Scot at looking after the "bawbees".

Mr. Ross

Could we be given any information about the prospects of these developments, because they have to be done before 1st January, 1965? If there is anything afoot we should like to know about it.

Mr. Marples

There is a great deal afoot. There is the question of a Commonwealth cable, the first leg of which is between the United States and Canada, followed by the link to Australia, New Zealand and across the Pacific. The Japanese want a cable between Japan and the United States. The whole technique of cable-laying of co-axial cable with rigid repeaters is gaining momentum at an enormous rate, and the next thing will be that television cables will be wanted. One cannot see where it will end. There is a wide field. As the hon. Member for Openshaw rightly said, it is mainly a question of how much money we are prepared to spend both on research and on the laying down of the cable. It is very expensive equipment. We shall not take the burden of development costs alone. The techniques are moving rapidly for the new co-axial cable, not for the old type of telegraph cable. It started in 1955 and goodness knows where it will end.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock asked who would manufacture the equipment at this end. It will be done largely by private enterprise under the direction of the Post Office, as is the case with most of the Post Office equipment.

If there are any question which I have not answered, it is not through lack of courtesy. I will read HANSARD, and if I find that I have missed any questions I will write to the hon. Members concerned. I hope that the House will pass the Motion unanimously.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Agreement, dated 16th March, 1959, between Her Majesty's Postmaster-General and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company for the acquisition of facilities to increase the capacity of submarine cable systems, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th June, be approved.